The Muse That Roars

Q: We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

It’s impossible to deny the premise of this question–the evidence that we are a visually dominated culture is everywhere to be found. Thirty years ago in most markets, there were three networks plus Public Broadcasting. Now, there are literally thousands of choices on cable and satellite and internet. What drove that enormous growth of television and film? Clearly, it’s our insatiable appetite for visual entertainment. And that appetite has been sated, as much as it can be, in a spectacular manner by the film and television industry.

What does this art form tell us about contemporary culture? It tells us that:

 1. We have a short attention span and it is getting shorter. 

Watch almost any TV show or film today and measure the length of time between new screen shots. Then do the same with something from the ‘40s, ‘50s, or ‘60s (hell, watch an episode of Miami Vice from the ‘80s and see how long the screen shots last). The differences will astound you. During the last set of previews I saw in the theatre, the pace of new screen shots was so fast, I could barely register what was on the screen before it changed.

 2. We’re inveterate and unrepentant voyeurs, and we’re approaching the point at which previous generations would have called us “creepy.” 

We watch sick people killing themselves (Hoarders and Intervention for example) and we try to convince ourselves that we’re watching in order to see the human spirit triumph over illness, but we’re really just watching someone else’s misery and getting some kind of sick thrill from it. We also watch karaoke and pretend it’s a talent show. Or, we watch people buying a house, renovating a house, selling a house, flipping a house, or getting a parking ticket, and maybe all of it takes place in Alaska, where the contestants are trying to strike it rich mining gold, or having a standoff with State Troopers. Or both.

 3. We’re so hooked on visual stimulation, that we’re willing to do without much plot or character development, as long as it looks fantastic when it’s bleeding.

Our HD TVs and our computer-generated graphics provide such stunning visuals and special effects, that reality looks positively stunted in comparison. The problem is that’s often all there is. When they all use the same technologies, they all look and feel the same; a cornucopia of stultifyingly indistinguishable cinema. As long as the vampires, pirates, terrorists, aliens, and oil company executives, die in a detailed and gory manner, we’re ready to go channel surfing and look for another fix of HD eye candy.

While I do think a good case can be made for film and television as the art form that says the most about contemporary culture, I also think that it is not particularly insightful. It is sometimes compelling and excellent art, but most of the time its simply entertainment. It tells us things we already know about ourselves and about the human condition; the only difference is that with our incredible technology, we can indulge those desires in ways that were unimaginable 40 years ago.

The stories we tell each other in this medium have not, however, changed that much. We still have dramas, comedies, tragedies, love stories, and everything else we had a century (or a millennium) ago; they’ve just been updated. When we leave the theatre or turn off the TV, we know the message (or lack thereof), we know the moral of the story, we know the ethical quandary, we know what the producers and writers were trying to tell us and where they were trying to lead us. The concepts are easily identified and contextualized by the audience, which means their ability to persuade is limited by the transparency of a medium that deals in concrete narratives. The ubiquity of visual stimulation surely has to diminish its ability to actually influence or move us as it once did. For example, many restaurants and bars have at least five or six large screens hanging on the walls and many sports bars and pubs have both the large screens on the wall and small screens in every booth. We’ve indulged our visual appetites to the point where it’s approaching a fetish and in doing so we’ve debased the impact that these stunning visuals once had.

That is why I say that using these measures is not particularly insightful in terms of contemporary culture. It’s all too obvious–most of the time it’s just a soothing drone in the background that is telling us where the culture was or where the artists want it to be. Granted, it’s a tall order to try and pinpoint “contemporary culture”–that is usually better done in hindsight when we can view eras with their successes and failures and their outcomes with greater clarity. Still, I believe that there is an art form that functions at an abstract, conceptual level where it does provide us with a view of contemporary culture, and that art is music.

Let’s consider music from a psychological perspective for a moment: Sound waves are generated, and these travel through the air and enter our ears. Upon entering, something involuntary happens in the brain; the listener processes these sounds and almost instantaneously builds psychological and emotional analogies, metaphors, simulacra (call them what you will). These then actually alter the listener’s mood. And this happens regardless of whether there are lyrics present or not. Try asking the next person you see the following questions: “Why do you listen to music? What does music do for you?”  I’m sure you’ll get the same answers I always get when I pose this question:

Music gets me feeling happy again.

Music makes me feel closer to God.

Music soothes me.

Music pumps me up for my workout.

Music helps me relax.

Music helps me to lose my inhibitions.

Music helps me get my work done.

Music helps me to sleep and it helps to wake me up.

[As an aside, these responses make me thankful that music is not a new invention; if it were, I’m sure it would be highly regulated and taxed as a powerful, dangerous, and certainly addictive narcotic and stimulant. I take that back–they wouldn’t regulate it, they’d classify it as a Schedule I Controlled Substance and make it illegal!]

I’m certainly not the first person to talk about music’s power as a cultural force. The Ancient Greeks were wary of music’s potential to lead a culture to decline, enough so that musicians playing scales or chords that were deemed to be decadent, were forced to leave town before they corrupted the citizenry. Philosophers and others throughout history–Boethius (c. 475-526), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Friederich Nietzsche (1844-1900),  and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) to name a few–have argued similarly about music and its effect on culture, usually through discussions of music and morality and ethics. [I touched on these topics briefly in a previous post on Heavy Metal and Jazz.] Far from being finished, the discussion continues unabated in our day, with conservative commentators like Roger Scruton and the Rev. Basil Nortz sounding the warning to be careful with this seemingly innocuous art form. We laugh at such notions today–music is just entertainment, a fun way to pass the time–how quaint of those old philosophers and these stodgy conservatives to think such silly things.

But what if they’re right on some level? If music can indeed somehow lead a culture in certain directions, we should be able to find some evidence for that. Let’s consider the history of American Music in the last century. The story of jazz is the story of an oppressed minority, unable to ride the same bus as white people, unable to drink from the same drinking fountains, unable to live their lives unencumbered by senseless bigotry and hatred. The right to make music, however, was not illegal, and they did indeed make music. Glorious music, chaotic music, heartfelt and deep music, new music that had never, ever been heard before, and music that could only have been Made in America. They developed their own music and their own subculture, existing in the shadows of the dominant culture at first, but then what happened? The barriers between white and black were removed by the musicians themselves at first, then by their audiences. Over time, popular culture in the United States was centered on jazz culture, to the point where we incorporated the attitudes, postures, and even the slang language of jazz. After 40-50 years, this movement was powerful enough to assert its political voice, culminating in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Is it a coincidence that jazz peaked at that time, waning ever since in terms of popularity and relevance? I don’t think so. Culture giveth and it taketh away. (Similarly, Rock and Roll started in the 50s, and 20 years later, a full blown cultural revolution centered around the music’s aesthetics and politics took the country, and indeed the world, by storm.)

In Europe before and after WWII, jazz was in a similar position, residing in the subculture, but the dominant political culture was opposed to it; neither the Nazis nor the Soviets liked jazz very much. These authoritarians explicitly recognized music’s innate power to nurture cultural movements, and they acted to prevent people from engaging in forms of music that were, at their core, in their very essence, liberating. Schopenhauer thought that music was the most direct expression of what he called “The Will” which we might define as the “life force” inside of us all, the thing that pushes us forward, drives us to invent and create. If he’s correct, then it makes sense that the oppressive regimes in 20C would try to silence that Will; it was a direct challenge to their control, and they knew it. In both cases (Europe and the United States) people were caged and, sometimes literally, shackled, and it was music that gave voice to their incontrovertible humanity and their cry for freedom. In time, that cry became the thunderous roar of millions and millions who demanded freedom and equality. And where did it start? It started with someone playing a guitar, or a piano, singing a harmless song, while simultaneously sparking the tinder for a big fire to come.

I am not saying that music is a direct cause of any of this, nor am I saying that music is the only art involved in these cultural movements. Poetry, dance, and literature were certainly also involved with jazz culture, but music was, I think, the central and defining element. I am saying, however, that music is the place in our culture where movements and change are born, nurtured, and allowed to develop  before slithering slowly into the dominant culture, where they may or may not take hold. If you want to see the state of contemporary culture as it thrashes, flails, and thrives, look at music in all its various forms; there you’ll see myriad cultural movements being born.

About FraKathustra

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